I was going to write this review about how TNT’s “Hawthorne” had the misfortune of being the second show in TV’s new wave of nurse appreciation, following after last week’s successful launch of “Nurse Jackie” on Showtime. But then I read a couple articles about the stench being raised by several major nurses’ groups claiming that Edie Falco’s character and the show built around her would do great damage to their profession.
I’ve read quotes from nurses shocked and disgusted by Jackie’s behavior — forging a donor card, flushing an ear down the toilet, taking drugs, having an affair, stealing money from a patient — as if the show somehow argued that Jackie’s actions were either typical of standard practice by nurses or, worse, a central part of the job. I’ve read quotes saying that Jackie and her doings might somehow steer young women away from the job.
Say what? The version of the show I saw had an individual character — not Nurse Nurse McNurserson: Patron Saint of All Nurses — doing a bunch of self-destructive things, the sorts of things that sometimes individuals do, but not the sort of thing that the show condoned or attributed to every nurse or any other nurse. That same character was also the strongest, smartest and most consistently empathetic and altruistic character in the entire show, a pillar of respect without whom the entire hospital would come crashing down. She was called a hero and a saint, revered and admired by every character on screen. The responsibility I saw Nurse Jackie take on and the respect I saw her given by all involved would make me think that nursing was a pretty exemplary profession.
And those nursing groups had better not come out in favor of “Hawthorne,” because TNT’s new show is both generally inferior to “Nurse Jackie,” but also far less illuminating on the place of the nurse within the contemporary medical establishment.
Review after the break…
[I’m not going to let this go: I asked a good friend from college, currently a nurse, for her read on “Nurse Jackie” and she, actual intellect that she is, reassured me that she wasn’t even slightly offended by “Nurse Jackie” and that she understood that it was meant as fiction. She told me that she didn’t didn’t like the show, but mostly because she found some of the supporting characters flat and some of the drama contrived. While I disagree with that opinion, I also respect it, because it’s based on an actual reading of the show in question.]
“Hawthorne” stars Jada Pinkett Smith as Christina Hawthorne, Chief Nursing Officer at Richmond Trinity Hospital. In what is becoming a TV narrative trend, Christina is observing the one-year anniversary of a personal tragedy, the death of her husband. She’s fighting the good fight at her hospital, battling with callous doctors and heartless administrators, while also raising a rebellious teenage daughter (Hannah Hodson, stuck with a character who alternates between irksome and afterthought).
Few cliches are more pervasive (and damaging) in all aspects of culture than the one that implies that women in a leadership positions can’t be trusted to follow rules, protocol and sometimes laws because they’re prone to being ruled by their emotions and empathy. Nurse Hawthorne is perhaps the most empathetic human being on the planet, because in the three episodes I’ve seen, she became emotionally invested in — and emotionally compromised by — at least one patient per week. Nurse Hawthorne is constantly on the verge of uber-empathetic tears and she’s prone to doing things that are either clearly illegal or clearly in violation of any reasonable code of ethics. She’s apparently incapable of making any sort of clear-headed decision, at least the way Pinkett Smith plays her.
But TNT’s description of the show emphasizes that Christina is “compassionate and headstrong,” as if one ought to counteract the other. Perhaps that’s why whenever Pinkett Smith isn’t crying or talking to her husband’s ashes, she’s standing with her arms crossed or her hands on her hips making it clear that she’s not a woman to trifle with and that no matter what sort of crazy stuff she does, she’s buffered by the courage of her convictions, or at least her stubbornness.
Nurse Hawthorne is forced into her frequent unpredictable behaviors because Richmond Trinity is a respected hospital that appears to be staffed by clowns for doctors. With a lone exception, the depicted doctors are all cartoons, caricatures and malevolent monsters, all bound and determined to kill every patient and mock every nurse and it’s up to Nurse Hawthorne to nearly single-handedly keep everyone alive and sane. After the third or fourth doctor sneered and insulted a “nurse,” saying the word the way vegans refer to “meat” or dyed-in-the-wool Southerners refer to “Yankees,” I had to start tuning the show out, because it’s inexcusable for a supposed drama to traffic so heavily in one-dimensional stereotypes. It’s also hard to fathom how series creator John Masius (“St. Elsewhere”) could have so little to add to the genre by way of a fresh perspective.
The only doctor on Hawthorne’s side is Dr. Tom Wakefield (Michael Vartan), the hospital’s well-meaning Chief of Surgery and a friend to Hawthorne’s late husband. The two have a likable chemistry, which means we can eagerly await their first kiss in the season finale. It has to be said that while Vartan is watchable and amiable, I don’t remember the last time I heard an actor in a medical drama sound so unconvincing when tossing around jargon.
Hawthorne’s team of nurses all require a good deal of defending, since they’re pretty one-note as well. Her best friend Bobbie (Suleka Mathew) isn’t defined by her beauty or her capabilities as a nurse. In fact, she does almost no nursing. But she has a prosthetic limb and that insecurity gets to be her only real definition. Vanessa Lengies’s Kelly is the obligatory high-voiced, wide-eyed newbie, a familiar type already embodied by Merritt Wever on “Nurse Jackie” and soon to be played in an identical manner by Michelle Trachtenberg on NBC’s midseason “Mercy.”
Want me to spoil a big twist/innovation in “Hawthorne”? Unlike “Nurse Jackie” and “Mercy,” which imply that most male nurses are gay, “Hawthorne” features straight male nurse Ray (David Julia Hirsch), albeit a frequently emasculated, chip-on-his-shoulder straight male nurse. Hirsch is actually pretty decent and he seems to be working harder than most of his colleagues to make his character interesting, even if the writers keep pushing him into a default position of pining for Christina Moore’s Candy Sullivan, whose character was named first and written afterwards.
One of the things I admire most about “Hawthorne,” which I want to applaud even if I’m tearing into the rest of the show, is that it instantly takes its place as one of TV’s most diverse shows, with doctors, nurses and patients all reflecting the racial makeup of Richmond. The show doesn’t really make Richmond into a character or even a backdrop, though. Almost everything takes place in the well-lit hospital and its parking lot. It would be improved dramatically by finding things about Richmond and its residents that are unique. Or maybe just having a character or two with a Southern accent.
I eagerly await the reaction of nursing groups to “Hawthorne,” but not nearly as much as I eagerly await the first new episodes of “Nurse Jackie” that I have yet to see.